Stephen King: On Writing and Lisey’s Story Review

Short and snappy as it is, Stephen King’s On Writing really contains two books: a fondly sardonic autobiography and a tough-love lesson for aspiring novelists. The memoir is terrific stuff, a vivid description of how a writer grew out of a misbehaving kid. You’re right there with the young author as he’s tormented by poison ivy, gas-passing babysitters, uptight schoolmarms, and a laundry job nastier than Jack London’s. It’s a ripping yarn that casts a sharp light on his fiction. This was a child who dug Yvette Vickers from Attack of the Giant Leeches, not Sandra Dee. “I wanted monsters that ate whole cities, radioactive corpses that came out of the ocean and ate surfers, and girls in black bras who looked like trailer trash.” But massive reading on all literary levels was a craving just as crucial, and soon King was the published author of “I Was a Teen-Age Graverobber.” As a young adult raising a family in a trailer, King started a story inspired by his stint as a janitor cleaning a high-school girls locker room. He crumpled it up, but his writer wife retrieved it from the trash, and using her advice about the girl milieu and his own memories of two reviled teenage classmates who died young, he came up with Carrie. King gives us lots of revelations about his life and work. The kidnapper character in Misery, the mind-possessing monsters in The Tommyknockers, and the haunting of the blocked writer in The Shining symbolized his cocaine and booze addiction (overcome thanks to his wife’s intervention, which he describes). “There’s one novel, Cujo, that I barely remember writing.”King also evokes his college days and his recovery from the van crash that nearly killed him, but the focus is always on what it all means to the craft. He gives you a whole writer’s “tool kit”: a reading list, writing assignments, a corrected story, and nuts-and-bolts advice on dollars and cents, plot and character, the basic building block of the paragraph, and literary models. He shows what you can learn from H.P. Lovecraft’s arcane vocabulary, Hemingway’s leanness, Grisham’s authenticity, Richard Dooling’s artful obscenity, Jonathan Kellerman’s sentence fragments. He explains why Hart’s War is a great story marred by a tin ear for dialogue, and how Elmore Leonard’s Be Cool could be the antidote.

King isn’t just a writer, he’s a true teacher. –Tim Appelo–This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

As his diehard fans know, King is a member of a writers-only rock ‘n’ roll band (Amy Tan is also a member), and this recording starts off with a sampling of their music. It may sound unsettling to some, but King quickly puts listeners at ease with his confident, candid and breezy tone. Here, King tells the story of his childhood and early influences, describes his development as a writer, offers extensive advice on technique (read: write tight and no bullshit) and finally recounts his well-known experience of being hit by a drunk driver while walking on a country road in 1999 and the role that his work has played in his rehabilitation. While some of his guidance is not exactly revolutionary (he recommends The Elements of Style as a must-have reference), other revelations that vindicate authors of popular fiction, like himself, as writers, such as his preference for stressing character and situation over plot, are engrossing. He also offers plenty of commonsense advice on how to organize a workspace and structure one’s day. While King’s comical childhood anecdotes and sober reflections on his accident may be appreciated while driving to work or burning calories on a treadmill, the book’s main exercise does not work as well in the audio format. King’s strongest recommendation, after all, is that writers must be readers, and despite his adept performance, aspiring authors might find that they would absorb more by picking up the book. Based on the Scribner hardcover (Forecasts, July 31, 2000).

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.


I agree with both reviewers:  On Writing is a phenomenal book.  I’m guessing that what I’m about to express is not popular but I’m not a fan of memoirs.  This book was initially published in the late 90’s and it has taken this year for me to start and finally finish it.  Boy, what I would have missed had I failed to pick it up.

I’m a long term fan of Stephen King but I am not a fan of the horror genre.  My one and only exposure was through King and Dean Koontz.  I would argue that neither of these authors are true representatives of the genre, their work is far more complex and in depth that a simple haunting or some mutant dog.  I’ve always felt that both of these writers were literary artists that happened to explore horror themes, but it’s literary nonetheless.

As mentioned above, On Writing is divided into three parts.  The first is a raw glimpse into his childhood and early writing years, the second parts offers advice to novice and experienced writers alike and finally, King provides an intimate look into his accident and the impact on his life and writings.

Stephen King offers several writing “truths” throughout the book but there were a few that stuck with me.

1.  Voice:  I refer specifically to the author’s voice although he also discussed character voices as well.  King’s advice is to spend time getting to know your own particular style.  This will be the thing that gives a writer staying power.  It took me awhile to figure this out; I spent a lot of time trying to write like authors I admire, some of those efforts were better than other but none were authentically me.  When I finally allowed myself the freedom to speak and communicate in a way that was authentically Angelyn, there was dramatic improvement in my work .

2.  Adverbs:  You know, those pesky, flowery words new writers tend to overuse as a way of expressing ourselves?  Carefully, specifically, initially, authentically. . . these are just a few of my own I noticed in the 3 paragraphs above.  King calls this lazy writing.  I agree.  I tend to rely on adverbs more when I’m either tired or trying to rush through a scene.  The ability to describe a scene without use of an adverb calls on the deliberate use and knowledge of writing skill and the writer’s art.

3.  Write tight.  If any of you have ever picked up a Stephen King novel, this memoir being one of the few exceptions, you know that King produces hefty size novels.  One of my immediate reactions (and usually wrong when it comes to Stephen King) is that his editor was not paying close attention.  Surely it doesn’t take 400 pages to tell a good story?  This is how he tells it:

Pace: fast is not always bestPace is the speed at which your narrative unfolds. There is a kind of unspoken (hence undefended and unexamined) belief in publishing circles that the most commercially successful stories and novels are fast-paced. Like so many unexamined beliefs in the publishing business, this idea is largely bullshit… which is why, when books like Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose suddenly break out of the pack and climb the bestseller lists, publishers and editors are astonished. I suspect that most of them ascribe these books’ unexpected success to unpredictable and deplorable lapses into good taste on the part of the reading public.

I believe each story should be allowed to unfold at its own pace, and that pace is not always double time. Nevertheless, you need to beware – if you slow the pace down too much, even the most patient reader is apt to grow restive.

When Stephen King advises writers to write tight, I don’t believe that he means pace and content, the story needs to be told regardless of how long it takes to tell it.  I believe that writing tight refers mostly to grammar and structural problems such as avoiding overuse of adverbs, finding appropriate metaphors and similes to express thoughts, set moods and settings and using strong dialogue to reveal aspects of your character, rather than “telling” your reader about them.

Publisher’s Summary

Lisey Debusher Landon lost her husband, Scott, two years ago, after a 25-year marriage of the most profound and sometimes frightening intimacy. Scott was an award-winning, best-selling novelist, and a very complicated man. Early in their relationship, before they married, Lisey had to learn from him about books and blood and “bools”. Later, she understood that there was a place Scott went, a place that both terrified and healed him, could eat him alive, or give him the ideas he needed in order to live.Now it’s Lisey’s turn to face Scott’s demons, Lisey’s turn to go to Boo’ya Moon. What begins as a widow’s effort to sort through the papers of her celebrated husband becomes a nearly fatal journey into the darkness he inhabited.

Perhaps King’s most personal and powerful story ever, Lisey’s Story is about the wellsprings of creativity, the temptations of madness, and the secret language of love.

©2006 Stephen King

I read On Writing and Lisey’s story at the same time.   This novel carries the supernatural elements we have come to expect in a King novel,  but at heart, it is a love story.  I also agree with the above review that the story feels very personal, particularly after reading King’s own account that he attributes his survival and prosperity in large part to his own wife.  Oftentimes, the public focuses on the famous (or infamous) and gives very little thought or attention to those in the shadows, the ones that provide support and comfort to them.  King’s admiration and gratitude for his wife rings throughout his telling of Lisey’s story.

It is a beautiful book.

2 thoughts on “Stephen King: On Writing and Lisey’s Story

  1. A good friend of mine recommended that I read this book a while back. (On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft) I was reluctant because I’d read tons of books on writing so to speak, and didn’t think his would be any different. Silly me…I almost missed out on brilliant piece of work. I couldn’t put the book down. A great read for writers no matter what stage of your career in. Case and point, never assume.

C'mon! I know you got something to say . . .

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s